Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan: Skylight) has no place in Victorian society. Uninterested in being a governess and resentful of the roles forced on women in 1870s’ England, she escapes to her aunt’s small farm. There she works the land, rides astride instead of sidesaddle and generally acts in ways that would give proper women the vapors.
Her wild nature attracts farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts: The Loft), who woos her with lambs and promises of a stable life. Bathsheba likes Gabriel but loves her freedom and rejects his proposal.
An unexpected inheritance grants Bathsheba even more freedom. She is given her late uncle’s massive farm estate and with it a small fortune. Now in want of nothing, Bathsheba sets about becoming a gentlewoman farmer. Though her staff and the town are skeptical of a woman managing money, crops and livestock, Bathsheba proves a brilliant businesswoman and capable farmer.
With money, land and freedom, Bathsheba sees no reason to take a husband. But suitors flock to her side, hoping to be the one to tame the wild woman. Her neighbor, wealthy farmer Mr. Boldwood (Michael Sheen: Masters of Sex) becomes obsessed with Bathsheba after she sends him a Valentine as a joke. Soldier Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge: Effie Gray) tempts Bathsheba with promises of passion and sex. And Gabriel, who lost his farm in a tragic twist of fate, returns to Bathsheba’s side to work as her shepherd and offer her advice.
Which of the men will Bathsheba choose? Why should she choose any?
Thomas Hardy’s 19th century novel Far From the Madding Crowd is a bit of pastoral soap opera. Director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) honors Hardy’s love of the pastoral but shifts the focus to Bathsheba’s independence. Each frame of the film is a painting, bringing out the beauty of the countryside and the occasional brutality of farm life. A stunning sequence involving the death of a flock of sheep is both horrifying and oddly poetic as filmed by Vinterberg.
Because Vinterberg is cramming several hundred pages of plot into 119 minutes, the film jumps around a bit. Book readers will know how much time has passed between scenes, but moviegoers may be confused. Still, the director captures the spirit of Bathsheba and the world she inhabits.
As the independent Bathsheba, Mulligan is a revelation. She gives her all the follies of youth, including impetuous, bratty behavior, without making her seem willfully cruel. This Bathsheba is a smart, strong girl, whose fire and drive make her a heroine worth rooting for.
Representing the three men who hope to tame her, Schoenaerts, Sheen and Sturridge are all excellent foils. Typically cast as a bruiser, Schoenaerts is surprisingly tender as Gabriel. Sheen is a ball of manic nerves and odd ticks as the obsessive Boldwood. Sturridge gets the least to do as Troy, but he manages to excrete an oily charm.
A beautifully shot, brilliantly acted tale of love, lust and sheep, Far From the Madding Crowd is a great companion to the Hardy novel. Like the men who surround her, you’re likely to fall for Mulligan in this stunning film.
Great Drama • PG-13 • 119 mins.